French troops continue with plan to leave Rwanda, despite appeals to stay

August 11, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

GIKONGORO, Rwanda -- French soldiers protecting an estimated 1.2 million Rwandans are continuing their pullout from this tortured African country, still uncertain whether another colossal refugee stampede is brewing.

French commanders, who have already cut their force by about half, pressed ahead with their plan for a complete withdrawal from their security zone in southwestern Rwanda by Aug. 22, although there are broad appeals for their troops to remain.

A few hundred French troops now provide a shield that keeps a giant mass of Hutus from bolting across the border into Zaire. At worst, such a flight could rival the tragedy of Hutus who have already crossed the border farther north in one of the deadliest refugee movements in modern times.

"It is very difficult to predict the reaction of large crowds. And they are gathering in the camps here every day. The psychology of this can go very quickly," said French Marine Col. Erik de Stabenrath, commander of this zone.

If Hutus rush across the border to Bukavu, Zaire, in coming days, they face conditions hardly better than the disease and despair that greeted the 1 million or so Rwandan refugees who went into Goma, Zaire, last month.

"It cannot happen again -- it simply cannot happen because it is too horrible to happen," said Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But if the Hutus stay put, their future may not be so bright, either. Perhaps 1 million of the Hutus here already are refugees from other parts of the country and what awaits them may be another bloody chapter in their death struggle for ethnic revenge, the French say.

The Hutus fear being left unprotected in their own country against the vengeance that is the history of Rwanda.

"We can cope with disease -- [but] the Tutsi soldiers will kill us for sure," said Venuste Hakizimana, 25, a Hutu teacher. "If the French leave, who will protect us? We are wondering, 'Can we stay? Or should we go?' I talk about this a great deal with my friends. We have decided if the French leave, we will leave."

Mr. Hakizimana says that he set himself a Sunday deadline. After that, he said, he will begin the five-day march from Gikongoro over a steep mountain road to reach Zaire before the last of the French soldiers goes home.

African troops of the United Nations already are moving into the region to try to maintain a shield for the Hutus. But neither African soldiers nor the United Nations is widely trusted here.

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